I went into this without any attachment to the 1976 film. I had seen some of it on TV once, I think, and I mostly remember Matthau being his smart-assy Matthau self to some kids playing baseball (or not, I think, it might've been a dialog scene), all while having a beer can in hand. This was, I felt, a good way to go into this new movie, to try and take it on its own terms. And my other concern - about it having too much of the feel of 'Santa', which I think was really the reason I stayed away when it was in theaters at the time in 05 - wasn't that firm either: Billy Bob Thornton's baseball player turned coach isn't really much like his criminal-drunk-fuck of a character in Zwigoff's film. This is good and maybe not quite so good. Or not that it's not so good but just... different, in an almost safe way. Almost. Again, a kid's movie.
This crappy baseball playing doesn't last long, however, and Butterworth finally snaps into it: he can either forfeit it all, quit, and give up the team now, or actually pull these little sons of bitches together (the kids try to quit first actually, saying they took a vote - Thornton's response, "This isn't a democracy! This is a dictatorship, and I'm Hitler!") Of course, the team ends up getting help from a damn good pitcher (his estranged daughter) and a damn good hitter (a younger/skinnier Chris Hemsworth look-alike, if that isn't him I'll be further damned).
|No, not Linklater's other child as an actor in this one, but still naturalistic and, uh, stuff.|
So, from the sound of all this, so far so good, right? Well, the difference between a movie like Bad News Bears and Bad Santa is that the latter really is a filthy, take-no-prisoners comedy meant for adults and with a "hero" who is notable for how despicable he truly is, while the former really is meant for kids, or at least young teens. It has what one might call a "Hard" PG-13; it skates just close to the line, has plenty of 'shits' but none of the 'F-word', and even a trip to Hooters for a celebratory dinner for the boys is almost kind of, I dunno, good natured.
It's a movie that has a kind of contradiction going on here and there, though not to necessarily a negative extent: it's an extremely sweet-natured rock n rollin' kind of movie with mischievous kids in some stereotyped forms and with an unrepentant asshole as the protagonist. Actually, that's not fully it - what it is is that it's a studio movie, so it'll still have those rousing beats and moments that make it feel... well, more satisfied with making things funnier.
That's a strange thing to say for what is both a very edgy flick for children and a soft/fun treat for the adults, not to mention a decent baseball flick. But I found the humor with the kid actors hit or miss - some of their interactions and wisecracking and back-talking could be hilarious and endearing even, or just fall totally flat, like a second rate cast of South Park characters - and even the sex jokes with Thornton's own world start to drag a little. If anything the movie starts to get more interesting as Butterworth sobers up and has to lead, and his contrast is best with Greg Kinnear's character.
|The character's least-punchable picture!|
In a way it's strange as a day or two later the scenes that stick out from the movie I think of a little more fondly now than my experience watching it. I had laughs through lots of it, I enjoyed the energy of the filmmaking (a shot where Thornton gets hoisted up in an audience at a skater-punk rock show is a sustained piece of pure entertainment), and in her handful of scenes Marcia Gay Harden has fun with a one and a half dimensional character. It may even be a good movie. Is it highly memorable? I don't know. It's like there are so many good moments, but the string tying them together is loose, even for a conventional sports movie. And though the kids are good by and large, none of them stick out like Tatum O'Neil or Jackie Earl Haley (from what little I could tell from the original).
Where it ends up is satisfying, though, just for how it doesn't sugar-coat anything, and goes out on its own note.